In honor of World Soil Day on December 5th, we asked visionary ranching couple and California Rangeland Trust partners Scott and Karen Stone of Yolo Land & Cattle Company about their working approach to soil health and sustainability. New research is highlighting how vital soil health is to the future of our planet, but in the lives of ranchers like Scott and Karen, it’s a daily consideration.
“Ag can do it all,” says Scott, an emeritus council member at the Rangeland Trust. “I think more and more people will see that working landscapes not only feed the world, they truly can save the world.”
For ranchers, who have a vested interest in preserving their land for tomorrow, soil health has always been a factor in ranch management. “It is pretty exciting to see how things are rapidly changing for farmers and ranchers regarding soil health and how it affects everything we do,” Scott says. “Many scientific studies coming out recently support the way we have been managing our rangelands for many years.”
Much of this validating research is coming from the field of climate science. Though carbon emissions from human sources are a factor in climate change, researchers believe that decreasing emissions won’t be sufficient to curb this trajectory; we must also take steps to reduce the carbon present in the atmosphere. One of the most promising methods for cutting atmospheric carbon is “carbon farming”—utilizing the natural process of photosynthesis to draw climate-changing gases back into the earth.
In other words, age-old practices of grazing and management may hold the secret to our planet’s future. “Science is bringing awareness to open space cattle ranching,” says Karen. “Not only are we beef producers, but now we’re healing the earth. We’re providing this process that is benefiting this earth—not just for today, but for forever. These are long, long-term benefits.”
In the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story “Can Dirt Save the Earth?” published in April 2018, ecologists and researchers discuss how agriculture presents solutions to climate change. The article explains how proper land management practices could remove billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Researchers have also found that treating the soil correctly is essential to maximizing carbon storage. The piece highlights composting and rotational grazing, practices that have long been in use at Yolo Land & Cattle Company.
“We are always trying to implement practices that improve our soils and ranches on a watershed-wide basis,” says Scott, who Karen calls a “carbon cowboy.” Rotational grazing is a management technique that avoids hard-packing the earth and facilitates the soil-restoring effects of grazing. Composting helps keep soil healthy and may even cause plants to soak up more carbon, as opposed to other applications such as manure, which tends to release greenhouse gases during decomposition.
This fall, Scott and Karen hosted their first soil carbon workshop at the ranch so others could learn about rangeland soil carbon storage and see their compost trial sites and 50-acre compost application firsthand. For over a decade, they’ve also partnered with the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Audubon California, and Yolo County Resource Conservation District in a perennial grasses study in which researchers examine the amount of carbon sequestered in the roots of certain perennial grasses grown on the ranch.
Their big picture approach affects all the resources produced at the ranch, from clean air to protein to water. “We’re getting much better water retention,” Scott notes. “If you don’t have bare ground and you have good grasses, and you’ve been taking care of it with rotational grazing and composting, you can actually sustain more groundwater recharge from storms that come through.”
Long before restorative grazing and soil carbon sequestration entered the national consciousness as crucial to climate health, the Stones and many other families in agriculture were living out these ideas, quietly protecting our shared resources and open spaces. Ranchers are stewards of the resources that impact our planet’s future, right down to the soil. The Rangeland Trust is passionate about keeping ranchers ranching, because their stewardship affects all of us. We need them now more than ever.
“I have seen some absolutely gorgeous, high-functioning farms and ranches in Northern California that have been split apart, sold, and developed, and are no longer working landscapes,” Scott says, listing estate taxes, government over-regulation, and urban sprawl as among the threats ranchers face. Working landscapes are precious and essential to the future of our planet. Once these lands are gone, they’re gone forever.
For the ranches conserved in partnership with the California Rangeland Trust, that decision has been made. Our ranching partners can have confidence that the land they love will stay intact and open forever. Our urban partners feel good knowing that our shared resources—from carbon-rich soil to clean water to beautiful view sheds throughout California—are in good hands.
“We feel grateful that this ranch will never have lights, it will never have homes, it will never have a golf course; it will be a working, open landscape,” Karen says. “Every day when I turn onto County Road 25 and start heading to the ranch, I look up at Edgar Peaks and I say, Thank you, God, for this beautiful landscape and the privilege to be a steward of this land.”